This was all the buzz last night on social media and for good reason. Multiple outlets are reporting that James A. Wolfe, a senior staffer for the Senate Intelligence Committee responsible for a lot of sensitive material, has been arrested in connection with leaks to the media. The initial charge wasn’t related to mishandling sensitive material, however, but rather for lying to investigators about it under oath. At the same time, it was revealed that a New York Times (formerly Buzzfeed) reporter who had been in a three-year relationship with Wolfe had her phone and electronic communications seized by the Justice Department earlier this year. (NBC News)
A federal grand jury indicted the staffer, James A. Wolfe, 58, on three counts of making false statements in December about contacts with reporters, including providing sensitive information related to the work of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which he served as security director for 29 years. He was arrested Thursday and is expected to appear in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland on Friday.
His arrest comes just one day after the full Senate, with little advance notice, quietly authorized the committee to cooperate with the Justice Department regarding what was described only as an “investigation arising out of allegations of the unauthorized disclosure of information.” The 15 members of the committee were briefed on the circumstances of the investigation Monday night.
The arrest is what it is, really. At least one of the subjects Wolfe is accused of leaking relates to the Russia investigation, which has been leaking like a sieve since the beginning. It’s a serious charge, and if proven, Mr. Wolfe is potentially facing some dire consequences.
What’s more interesting to me is the reporter’s role in all of this and the reaction coming from the media. Ali Watkins “declined to comment” last night, but she’s supposedly the one who had been dating Wolfe and then conveniently coming up with some big scoops. The seizure of her phone and other records related to her source brought swift condemnation from the Gray Lady, which released a statement saying such an intrusion would “endanger reporters’ ability to promise confidentiality to their sources and, ultimately, undermine the ability of a free press to shine a much needed light on government actions.”
The Freedom of the Press Foundation piled on with their own accusation, saying, “All leak investigations — whether they directly target reporters or not — are a grave threat to press freedom. Whistleblowers are the lifeblood of reporting, and the Trump administration is directly attacking journalists’ rights by bringing these cases.”
That seems to be the go-to allegation from the media when something like this happens. (And it was happening frequently under Obama as well, by the way.) The statement from the Freedom of the Press Foundation should prompt us to ask an important question. When is a whistleblower not a whistleblower? At least in theory, the whole idea of having whistleblowers and ensuring they are protected is based on the premise that they are government insiders who see our elected officials up to no good and get the word out to the media so they can be exposed. That’s a noble cause indeed and should be supported.
But were any of these leaks from the Mueller probe actually blowing the whistle on government malfeasance? The Senate Intelligence Committee was conducting an investigation, and it was potentially a very sensitive one. That’s their job. And Wolfe’s job was to shepherd around sensitive documents and keep them safe. I’ve yet to hear any allegations that the committee was somehow failing in their duties or acting improperly. Wolfe wasn’t blowing the whistle. He was giving his girlfriend a juicy leak which would draw major attention while casting a cloud of negative buzz around the Trump administration. In doing so, other people who might possibly have been involved in whatever they were investigating could have been forewarned and gone to ground.
Digging out secrets from a committee engaged in that sort of work before they were finished and ready to release their findings isn’t whistleblowing or protecting the public. It’s damaging the process and risking other sources, all apparently in the name of generating bad headlines for the White House. I’m having a hard time feeling too much sympathy for either Wolfe or Watkins this morning, honestly.